[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]


December 23, 2005


This week in Israel….. Behind the news with Gershon Baskin


Strokes and Strokes


Just last weekend I commented that in the Middle East we must always plan for the unexpected because it is usually what happens and impacts more than what is expected. In that context, I mentioned Sharon’s age and his health. I must be more careful with my words…On Sunday night Sharon was hospitalized with what turned out to be a minor stroke.  Thousands of words have already been written about this. I will add a few of my own.


It was already clear to everyone that Arik is Kadima and Kadima is Arik.  If Sharon’s illness would have been more serious and he would have been prevented from running, it is probably too late in the game for all of those who crossed political boundaries to join Kadima to scramble back to where they came from.  The public, however; would undoubtedly move around the political map.  Kadima, which under Sharon is expected to get about 40 seats, would probably get less than half of that without him.  But Sharon got right back on the horse after stumbling and the public stroked him with support and sympathy.  His illness has not cost him anything in the polls this weekend.


Sharon has now published his medical records, appearing in the weekend newspapers. His health will continue to be a concern of the public, but the public seems more concerned about what he will do once re-elected.  The paradox of Sharon and the public’s strokes is that the public’s support for Sharon is based on the belief that he is lying to them.  This is extraordinarily bizarre.  Sharon keeps on stating that there will be no more unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank and the public doesn’t believe him. Sharon’s number 2 or 3, Finance Minister Ehud Olmert was pressured on television to expose Sharon’s real intentions.  He stated that everything is known. He said that Sharon supports the Road Map, but there is probably no partner for it implementation on the Palestinian side, and that Sharon implemented the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. From that, he said, you can understand his intentions and his plans.


Sharon will continue to bet on ambiguity in order to rake in as many votes as possible.  He believes that the more explicit he is regarding his intentions, the more votes he will lose – so why be explicit?  The public has embraced the ambiguous platform and is not demanding more information or explanations.


In order to control possible disclosures of plans and intentions, Sharon’s advisors have appointed six people from the party to talk to the public.  All other members have been told to keep a low profile during the next three months.  We won’t be hearing too much from Shimon Peres, Haim Ramon, Dalia Itzik or even Tzahi Hagenbi.  Sharon wants to bring out the center and to hide the sidelines – on the right and on the left. We will be seeing and hearing a lot from Tzipi Livni who is constantly rising in the polls.


Peres never gives up


When Shimon Peres bolted the Labour party and joined forces with Sharon, he stated that he would not be seeking a seat in the Knesset and hoped that Sharon would appoint him to a ministerial position dealing with the peace process and the development of the Negev and the Galilee. The weekend media is already full of speculation that Peres has changed his mind and will seek a realistic place on the Kadima list.  This time around, he doesn’t have to face any elections –that he knows he is bound to lose.  Sharon will be constructing the list together with his closest advisors.  There are no democratic institutions yet in Kadima and Peres probably thinks that without having to stand for elections, he can get in.  The polls continue to pour support on Peres as they have usually done – this however, has never translated into real support on election day.  The latest polls show that Peres has the highest level of support for being in the position of number 2 after Sharon, should Sharon fall ill and not be able to serve.  The public would never elect Peres, but he could once again end up being Prime Minister by default.  Peres is probably betting on that card in seeking a position.  The Prime Minister must be a member of Knesset according to the law.  I hope that Sharon honors Peres with the 120 spot on the list and that he does not get a realistic position in the Kadima list.  Peres deserves recognition and honor, not power.


Elected to lose


Bibi Netanyahu won the Likud primaries but he will lose the elections.  Silvan Shalom lost the primaries but he stands a good chance to win the Likud after elections. Bibi has lots of problems inside of his party.  He was supported by the right-wingers and the rebels in the party. In his victory and planning speeches the day after the victory he said that he would now work diligently to remove “criminal and dangerous elements” from the party.  He was of course, referring to Moshe Feiglin the rouge Likudnik who captured 12% of the vote and has more than 115 loyal members of the Likud’s powerful Central Committee. Bibi says that Feiglin, as a convicted felon from seven years ago, is not eligible to run on the party ticket according to the law. Feiglin and his “Jewish Leadership” movement may back down and put up some other candidates to compete for some of the top slots in the party list.


There are still many Sharon loyalists in the Likud Central Committee who might actually vote for Feiglin and his allies in order to ensure that the Likud will have a right wing extremist face in the public’s eye. Bibi wants to get rid of the Feiglins in order to move the image of Likud into the center and to compete with Sharon for the support of the majority of the public.  He is not likely to succeed in removing the Feiglins, as they are called, from the party.


Bibi is also now working to bring the Likud Ministers in the government to leave and be in the opposition – which would make it easier for Bibi to attack the government.  When Amir Peretz was elected he brought each Labour minister an already prepared letter of resignation and demanded that they all sign.  Bibi has not been so creative or forceful.  He is facing resistence from the Minister of Educaiton Limor Livnat and from Minister of Health Danny Naveh.  The press has suggested that the Likud Ministers will not resign until after the Likud primaries for the list – why should they voluntarily give up their car and driver and other ministerial benefits that will help them in their campaigns.  So, at least until the Likud primaries, the Likud Ministers will remain in the government, in spite of Bibi.


The weekend polls projected a small increase in support for the Likud after Bibi’s election, but not significant enough to project any threat to Kadima or Labour.  Bibi will lead the Likud, once again, to another defeat.  The main question then will be if he stays in town to lick the wounds and rebuild, or will he once again desert the party and head for business? Silvan and Judy Shalom are betting on Bibi leaving to party and then King Silvan will take over together with Queen Judy, and at least the two of them will be happy.



Palestinian elections, Jerusalem, Qassams and Bil’in


Israel may have handed a life saver to Abu Mazen whose Fatah party looks dismal in the face of a likely Hamas victory in the PA Parliamentary elections scheduled for January 25, 2006.  Various Israeli spokespeople have said that if the Hamas is participating in the elections, Israel would not allow the elections to be held in Jerusalem.  Several key Palestinian spokespeople immediately jumped on the bandwagon and stated that without Jerusalemites participating, the elections would have to be postponed.  Other Palestinians, including key Jerusalemites have said the opposite.  Egyptian strong man, Minister of Internal Security Omar Suleiman came to Israel and Palestine on his periodic check-up visits to ensure that Palestinian elections would in fact take place but that Hamas would not win.  (They know how to do that kind of thing in Egypt.)  Suleiman demanded that the Fatah re-organize itself and present only one list and that Israel not prevent the Palestinians from holding their elections. 


I assume that Israel will coordinate very carefully with the Americans on this issue and if it continues to seem clear that there will be a Hamas victory, then both the US and Israel will step up the political rhetoric that will provide the Palestinian leader with an escape clause from having to hold the elections on schedule.  One clear danger for Israel is that if elections are delayed, the Tahdiya – or ceasefire  (calm period) between the Hamas and the PA will probably breakdown.  The end of the ceasefire will not be Hamas attacks against the PA, but Hamas attacks against Israelis. History has always shown that when Palestinians fight Palestinians, Jews end up getting killed.


Some Palestinian forces in Gaza are continuing to launch Qassam rockets from Gaza to Israel.  The PA security forces are completely impotent and apparently lacking the directives from above to prevent the attacks. Now they are launching them from the areas of the vacated settlements in the northern Gaza Strip. Rockets hit areas south of Ashkelon this week and even twice landed in an army base where 5 soldiers were lightly wounded.  Israel clearly cannot accept this continuous barrage of rockets.  It has responded by canceling the planned trial of the passage convoys between Gaza and the West Bank.  The US pressure on this issue has completely disappeared in light of the Qassams. 


Israel is continuing to shoot artillery in the areas where the rockets are being launched.  The air force is destroying roads and bridges that lead to the launching areas – these are also regular roads that thousands of Gaza residents need to be able to move about.  And of course the policy of targeted killings is continuing.  The IDF did propose a more direct ground attack into Gaza but were not yet given the green light.  Something has to remain in the strategic reserve in case there are casualties from the Qassams - then the government will respond with more force.  In the meantime, the public’s anger is on the rise against the Palestinians and the sense of total chaos and the non-existence of the Palestinian Authority is the clear conclusion of the Israeli public strengthen by the intelligence reports being leaked to the public everyday.


Palestinians from the village of Bil’in, near the large Haredi settlement Modiin Elite have borrowed tactics from their settlement rivals and placed a caravan on west of the planned route of the separation barrier which is annexing large tracts of their land in order to build another Jewish neighborhood in Modiin Elite.  Bil’in’s weekly protests, mostly non-violent, have been held together with increasingly large numbers of Israelis and internationals. Bil’in’s leader, Abdallah Abu Rahme was involved for years in IPCRI’s peace education program as a teacher.  He taught the IPCRI curriculum and participated in many meetings and encounters with his Israeli counterparts.  Abdallah has demonstrated quality leadership and a commitment to non-violent struggle.  Israel has responded with unwarranted force and anger towards the Bil’in struggle.  If it is true that the route of the fence there is aimed to grab land for expanding Modiin elite (the courts will decide) then this is something that must be strongly objected to and Abdallah and the people of Bil’in deserve more support.